ministry of presence

“Afetdaos (the war-affected) were reintroduced into the rhythms of life and stable society.  People assumed that the war-traumatized, especially those who had spent time as kidnap victims or as soldiers, had been severed from the foundations of nurturance, and nurturance is antithetical to violent abuse.  Numerous ceremonies exist to assist those who have been exposed to war and violence.  Most involved cleansing ceremonies, physical and emotional healing, and practices to reintegrate the person back into the community and a healthy lifestyle.

One ceremony I participated in involved a woman who had returned after having been kidnapped by soldiers and held at their base for months.  She returned physically sick and emotionally traumatized.  The ceremony actually began days before the time of the public gathering.  Community members stopped by to bring food, medicines, words of encouragement, and friendship.  They helped the woman piece together a bit of decent clothing to wear, and collected water for her to bathe with.  They sat patiently and told her stories of other atrocities: a constant reminder that the woman was not alone, nor was she somehow responsible for her plight.  On the day of the ceremony, food was prepared, musicians called in, and a dirt compound shaded by pleasant trees and plants swept and decorated with lanterns and cloth.  The ceremony itself lasted throughout the night, a mosaic of support and healing practices.  Several high points included the ritual bath the woman received at dusk.  Numerous women picked up the patient, and carefully gave her a complete bath – a cleansing of the soul as well as the body.  The bathing was accompanied with songs and stories about healing, about dealing with trauma, about reclaiming a new life and being welcomed into the community.  The patient was then dressed in her new clothing, and fed a nutritious meal.  Shortly thereafter, the musicians began a new rhythm of music, and all the women gathered about the patient to carry her inside the hut.  There they placed her in a ball on the floor and gathered round her, supporting her.  The support was emotional as well as physical: they tended her wounds, they stroked her much like one would stroke a frightened child, and they quietly murmured encouragements and reassurances.  After a while, the women began to rock the patient, and lift her up among them.  They held her up with their arms, talking about rebirth in a healthy place, among people who cared for her, far from the traumas of war and the past.  They carried her outside, where the community welcomed her as part of it.  Everyone began to play music, the audience accompanying the musicians, and after a while, each member of the audience got up in front of the musicians and danced: for the patient, as part of the community, to reaffirm life.  Slowly the formal structure of the ceremony gave way to the more natural patterns of community interaction, and the patient was drawn into these interactions.  Throughout the ceremony, the woman was continually reassured with stories of ongoing support; of her need to place responsibility for her plight with war and not her own actions; and of her own responsibility to heal the war’s wounds so she does not inflict the violence that she was subjected to on others.  Respected traditions and nonviolent values are revitalized in story, song, and interaction.  With this, community is rebuilt for, and with, the patient.

…Becoming self-sufficient is an important part of a person’s reintegration into the community…Reintegration in this sense means helping a person reconstruct a viable life, a livable day.  One powerful way of doing this in Mozambique is through farming.  In an agricultural society, the rhythms of working the fields are at the core of healthy life.  In agricultural work people are not only linked with the cycles of planting and harvesting, they are relinked with their ancestors and the traditions that keep society sound.  Victims of violence were encouraged to begin farming plots of land.  Often others in the community would work with them: giving solace, telling traditional stories, redirecting anger and vengeance into community building and positive political action, reminding scarred and battered limbs how to work.”

Getting a ride into Seattle a few days ago I realized more of the beauty and danger of this itinerant life. I had attended a conference last week called “We are the Medicine”, put on by a center in Oregon (The Sacred Art of Living and Dying) to help health-care workers understand themselves better in relation to Death and dying patients. It was a powerful all-day event, full of wisdom and stories from cultures and times all around the world.

Like Mohammed recommending
“Die before you die”
so when you die, you’re not dying…

And the Irish good morning greeting translating to
“May you have a happy death”

Yet since I left the auditorium to step out into the rain, I hadn’t once thought about it. All caught up in the beauty and business of my life, on-call at the hospital, at an improvised farming conference with friends, receiving guests, revising the pilgrimage book, and teaching a cooking class. And here, now, this morning, I walk into the hospital and remember all of that input. And it comes flooding back, relevant, semi-digested, ready to be of use.

Just strange that without conscious reflection — indeed without the space for conscious reflection — some of these truths and knowledges still seep deep within us.

This morning, then, I saw a man sick with cancer, depression, addiction, homelessness, and an inability to forgive himself. He is intelligent and educated, a successful business owner who sought the comfort of crack cocaine after a romantic relationship broke down, almost 20 years ago.

There’s, of course, a lot, but I wanted to share a little bit about the process of spiritual diagnosis, his sense of self, and what he taught me.

We went through the four regions Richard Groves (who wrote a book called The American Book of Dying) had recommended as possible areas of spiritual pain. I haven’t thought about his matrix too much or tried to improve upon it, just trying it out.


Pretty standard areas for us all to get tripped up on. When I asked my new friend, with a gaping abscess in his neck and hooked up to more plastic tubes than a child in the Matrix, about Hope, he brightened up and shared heartfully about the depth of his hope and faith in the divine. Unflinching confidence things were going to work out. Incredible hope from a man in the basement of a beeping hospital.

Both times I had visited that room previously, it was to attend a death.

And when we got to Forgiveness, it all broke down. He was ready to admit how much he held against himself, how little he forgave himself for this 17-year “lunch break” from his normal life. He offered a prayer to god, asking forgiveness, with earnest devotion.

We sat in silence. I asked him, “[Name], do you think that’s really it?” Trying to get more specific with this diagnosis, trying to follow the paradigm. Thinking of the doctor holding the right hand and asking, “Where exactly does it hurt?”

“I think God has forgiven you a long time ago. I thought the whole point of the story was that you were already forgiven. To whom should you be praying?”

And he broke down again, could look me in the eyes and really understand, could really *feel*, that he was holding all this pain up against himself, pinning himself against a wall of guilt and agression. It was so incredible to see, to learn from, how an intelligent mind so used to language and thought could see beyond words and constructs he’d been using for so long (praying for forgiveness, speaking of forgiveness) and have a moment of “oh shit, i get where this is coming from.”

The morning lesson in chaplain school. I had never spoken so much or so directly in a visit before. I usually just listen, pray, offer love, affirm. Just learning through practice, but sometimes it seems the words, the direction, can help in subverting their own…

Near the end of our visit, he shared with me —
“They can delay me, but they can’t stop me. Whoever they are: Including myself.”

Which i think is a pretty relevant conclusion.


Pivotal Moments #1

It’s out there, in a Fine Balance, somewhere:
An abusive cop
Beating our heroes
and taking bribes
Just to get lessons
for his daughter to play
the violin

Which of my luxuries
rest on terror?

Waves of great comfort
Lightness of load
When I get it,
there is no away from it.

We are made of violence,
and it’s the suffering that binds us

Pivotal Moments #2

In the movie about sacred trust
and patients falling in love with their pastors
One monk, she said,
“they think they are in love with me,
but really it’s the dharma they see”

Afterwards, after words
and silence besides,

I said without thinking —
“Do you think we ever really love each other,
or are we always in love with the dharma?”

She thought without saying —
“Now let’s not think on this one…”

Then said to me, tearing —
“When I learned
as a child
that our fingerprints are all different,
I felt so incredibly alone.”

it’s the indian new year, or one of them, and i don’t particularly know what to do other than what my elders tell me. this time it was, predictably, calling my elders (“superiors”) and asking for blessings. which i find altogether natural, so yesterday night and today my mother and i spent a couple hours on the phone dialing india and new jersey and california and texas, calling on uncles and aunts and flute teachers and cousins and jayeshbhais (mentors) and friends and brothers and sisters.

it was incredible. pleasing. a rush. high. maybe from all the blessings. i had a vision of what hallmark, in its heart of hearts, beyond all the corporatism and commerce, is really aspiring towards. what if on national secretary appreciation day we really went and visited or called all the secretaries we ever knew, thanked them, and asked for their blessings and best wishes for the coming lunar year. lunacy. lunocracy. philocracy.

getting closer.

there was some sadness too in the long dark house with the sliding doors pointed south towards snow-covered peaks. warm days and clear nights in late october (as predicted). it’s gorgeous september weather. perfect for scything and coming home to mulled appled cider. my mom had lit a few candles after the cooking class calmed down and i realized only when going to bed that Diwali is the festival of lights and lighting a candle is an integral part of the ritual. i can only imagine the other parts. big feasts and visiting families, special dishes and all night dances. it’s big news everytime i go to india, six months before and after the party. and here we had a couple of sad vanilla candles and no dancing and no drumming and no flirting and certainly no marriages being planned. to the relatives’ collective dismay.

so i recalled my cousin telling me it was only proper to make a “rangoli” (that is, a sort of intricate design) out of flowers, in the shape of an om, and place candles around and within it. so, in a desperate act of acculturation, i tenderly tore all the red flowers off my mother’s only flowering houseplant, and assembled them into an anemic om on the checked tablecloth. with a vanilla candle a little to the left.

we’re all doing the best we can. at home and in the hospital. for the new year, the new light, and the new love.

i just saw a patient, slightly confused (we say “demented” in the hospital). he thought we were in portland and was reminiscing for that great harborview hospital back in seattle. he said his son just left a 5-10 year career in a national professional sports league and was now a chaplain. we should talk. and he loves gandhi. he even told me “I love that man. Gandhi has a big heart. Like a lion.”. And he was proud “Most people follow [Gandhi’s] philosophy, his theology. All the American Presidents. Like Martin Luther King Junior.”

I’d be proud, too. I’m proud that most people are into the Love if you have the angle light and the shimmering glare of ego and suffering don’t blind you to what’s really going on. I’m proud of the work everybody in this hospital is doing, proud of lovers driving each other to separation and partnership at airports, at comings and goings which reveal the strength of the ties below.

Blessed are the filmmakers and the rappers (you’ll see: )
Blessed are those who cook for the homeless and the winos
Blessed are those who imitate the shadows and those who seek the flame.

After a short lifetime of worshiping the beauties of freedom and choice, independence and aspiration, I came yesterday face to face with the gorgeous surrender to duty. A woman thousands of miles away asked me to visit a friend of hers — just because we’re both in the same state, hours and busy schedules apart — and I shocked myself at being So Damn Eager to perform the slightest service, to honor this woman who had treated me so well, took me in as a hungry son, taught me how to sort mangos. You get the idea. As Vanessa says in her yoga teacher training, “I stand ready to obey your least command”.

ready and willing here we are. festival of vanilla candles and wilted pink flowers. doing the best we can. a poem to end with, that i read earlier to the gentleman over there:

(by Mary Oliver, from _Thirst_)

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —  equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is that we live forever.



It’s my third week here as a chaplain at harborview. I’m still astounded by the beauty of their weapons, as l. cohen might say — the bright lights and electronic equipment, the hundreds of calmly suffering patients, the intense amount of healing, the intense lack of healing.

I’m blown away by the size of the project, the hospital in general, the mission to serve — about all else — the inmates of the county jails and the indigent and the non-english speaking poor, and all the rest of us that the statue of liberty still welcomes (i think). This place is a long way down the red road from “small steps” and “one person at a time”. You can’t have machine that bring back people’s breathing and electrical currents with that kind of change. I think. Maybe.

So that still says nothing about chaplaincy and this experience and that’s probably because I feel too green to do anything. So instead I’m going to share some passages I’ve read in the past few weeks. Some offerings I shared with fellow chaplains and fellow patients, during prayers and reflections, ministries of presence and compassion. They all run together towards their true nature as one.

That’s perhaps the only surety I have in all this — that separation from our true nature, our true nation, what I can, in my little jargon, the “One Love” — is illness. And in that sense we are not well — perhaps joyously and aware — we are separated from our true selves, we are sick, we are in a giant late capitalist hospital. It’s with that understanding that I record the gospel raps of brothers in the psych ward and hold the hands of recovering crack addicts crying about our future. It’s only that handspun cord that makes all the shaking and tears and prayer make sense and not jumble.

So there’s that. Johnny Cash whistles in the background.

1) from Neruda’s _Hands of Day_

From so many rough hands
descended the tool,
the wineglass,
even the famous curve
of the hip that then pursued
the whole woman with its design!

The hand that forms
the wineglass of the form,
it conveys the pregnancy of the barrel
and the lunar line of the bell.

I ask some mighty hands
to help me
change the profile of the planets:
triangular stars
the traveler needs:
constellations like cold dice
of square clarity:
those hands that extract
secret rivers fro Antofagasta
until the water rectifies
its avarice lost in the desert.

I want all the hands of men
to knead mountains
of bread and to gather
all the fish from the sea,
all the olives
from the olive tree,
all the love not yet wakened
and to leave a gift
in each of the hands
of the day.

2) from Wendell Berry’s _The Unsettling of America_

Some prominent agricultural economists are still finidng it possible to pretend that the only issues involved are economic, but that possiblity is diminishing. I recently attended a meeting at which an agricultural economist argued that there is no essential difference between owning and renting a farm. A farmer stood up in the audience and replied: “Professor, I don’t think our ancestors came to Ameirca in order to rent a farm.”

‘Nough said.
3) from Brother Lawrence in 1666
Having found in many books different methods of going to God, and divers practices of the spiritual life, I thought this woul serve rather to puzzle me than facilitate what I sought after, which was nothing but how to become wholly God’s. This made me resovle to give the all for the all; so after having given myself wholly to God, that He might take away my sin, I renounced, for the love of Him, everthing that was not He, and I began to live as if there was none but He and I in the world. Sometimes I considered myself before Him as a poor criminal at the feet of his judge; at other times I beheld Him in my heart as my Father, as my God. I worshipped Him the oftenest that I could, keeping my mind in His holy presence, and recalling it as often as I found it wandered from Him. I found no small pain in this exercise, and yet I continued it, notwithstanding all the difficulties that occurred, without trobling or disquieting mself when my mind had wandered involuntarily. I made this my business as much all the day long as at the appointed times of prayer; for at all times, every hour, every minute, even in the height of my business, I drove away from my mind everything that was capable of interrupting my thought of God.
4) from some Advaita text, possibly Sankara, quoted by Ken Wilber
The world is illusory
Brahman alone is real
Brahman is the world
Not much explanation necessary, I think, but I’ll step on that by pointing out I’ve come much further with Christianity understanding the talk of God in 3 as shorthand for the understanding so clearly present in 4; that is, that by considering ourselves in a universe that only includes me and god (atman and brahman) we are effectively considering everything we see, from the homeless woman in the hallway to a dysfunctional google calendar, to be god.
And it’s worth nothing that the instructions on meditation are, well, exact. That’s all we need, really, if we can follow it.
one love from the department of spiritual care,
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